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Posts Tagged ‘game development’

Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been a month since I deleted Marvel Puzzle Quest from my smartphone.  I played the game for almost six months and had a decent roster of characters built up.  And yet… almost every single change that the developers made during the time I played the game made the game less appealing.  I finally reached the point where I just didn’t want to like it any more, and gave up.

The sad part is that the core gameplay is actually really solid.  The puzzle combat isn’t finely balanced, but I’m fine with that, as I don’t mind a bit of imbalance.  It is well crafted and adds some nice twists to the Puzzle Quest formula.  If the game can be taken purely on its combat, it’s a fine addition to the pedigree.

And yet, the progression scheme and monetization scheme (intricately tied together, but even without monetization, the progression would be awful) just kill the game in the long run.  Of course, that’s “kill the game for me”, since it’s apparently still live and gathering clients, but I would really love to see some numbers on what sort of churn they are seeing.  It is very much a “winners win more” game, with elements that skirt the dreaded “pay to win” area.  Some of the judgment on the latter depends on how you define the phrase, but for me, it’s clearly designed to give an edge to those who spend inordinate amounts of money on the game, in no small part because of how glacial the progression system is, and that you can pay to speed it up.

This is not anything new in the F2P arena, to be sure, and it’s less grievous than being able to flat out buy victories, but it does undermine what could be very satisfying PvP combat puzzling.

In the end, though, it wasn’t any single huge change that made me uninstall the game.  It was a death by degree.  The poor progression scheme.  Nothing worth spending money on (which saved me money, but it was still what I thought of as poor design).  New characters introduced fairly regularly… but predominantly at the rare tier, so recruiting them was a crapshoot with their slot machine sort of character acquisition.  (Almost everything in the game is tied to a random chance of acquisition or absurdly overpriced… sometimes both.)  The change in healing so that it was limited to the combat of the moment.  Damage persists after a fight, limiting the ability to play multiple rounds in succession unless you heal in the fight or pay for refills between fights.  You get a few free refills, but they don’t last long if you’re in a heated race to top the competition boards to get some character you’d like.  You can buy refills or wait for them to recharge, 1 every 35 minutes, and you can hold 5 at a time.  (With 3 characters in combat, that’s not a lot of healing to go around.)  Competition is mostly PvP of a sort (never against other players; the AI just takes their team and runs it), which isn’t terrible, but PvP really needs to be balanced to be fun, and when character levels can be as disparate as they are in the game, it gets old when you play a few successful rounds and then get matched with an overpowered team you have no chance of beating.  Normalized PvP (like Guild Wars) where skill and team composition rule would go a long way to making the game better… but that sort of level playing field is harder to monetize.

Playing the moment to moment combat was still good fun.  It’s just… everything else isn’t, and the combat alone isn’t enough to save the game.

On the other hand, there’s Slingshot Braves.  It’s sort of a weird mix of PS1-era graphics (so it still looks good; I’m playing on a phone for crying out loud), Squids and Angry Birds, with a gear upgrade system that feels a bit like Puzzle & Dragons (consume hundreds of little pieces of loot to level up your gear) and a newly introduced gem/slot system that is a bit like socketed gear in a Blizzard game, but you can also level up the gems by combining several of a kind, and you can move some gems around, so it has a slight FFVII flavor.  It’s simple, but the five weapons are fairly elegantly designed, each with its own niche.  Leveling gear is slow, and the only way to make your team stronger, but it feels just fast enough to be acceptable.  Marvel Puzzle Quest’s character leveling is very, very slow by comparison.

Acquiring gear is only done via very rare loot drops or by the “Gacha” system.  It’s effectively a gear slot machine.  This is a bit annoying, but the game provides you with enough “gems” (the currency you can buy directly or earn via play or the occasional promotion) to get the occasional new bit of gear in that system.  Gear is in four tiers (C, B, A, and S, increasing in value), and you’re guaranteed at least a B level bit of gear in the Gacha.  It’s a bit annoying in that the best gear seems to be in the Gacha gamble, but at the same time, you can level up your gear and evolve it to a higher tier with enough little loot drops, so you can grind into some good gear eventually.  It’s slow, and annoying to get great new gear that you then have to level up, but that’s the quirk that comes with leveling gear in general.  It’s still much faster than MPQ’s system, and less frustrating.

I’m not sure there’s much that offers good value for real money here, either, but at least progress in the game isn’t as tedious as is is in MPQ.  You can buy gems, which allow character renaming, larger loot libraries, Gacha “pulls” and stamina refills (each mission you play consumes stamina, which recharges slowly; a standard F2P throttle).  Still, it’s not necessary, and most importantly, buying gems doesn’t have a huge effect on your success or pace of progress.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the only multiplayer system is a cooperative one, so it’s OK if someone else is stronger than you.  You both win faster that way.  There is some light competition among scoring leaderboards on some events, but the majority of the time any reason you have to care about the gear other players have is in how much it helps you, not how hard it is to beat.  That’s a huge underlying shift in assumptions and goals, and it makes a world of difference.

…and is it telling that the progression scheme is the first thing I write about?  That’s really where these games live or die, since that’s where they monetize, usually.  It’s also where things get annoying, and where MPQ got worse as time went on, SB just keeps getting better.  Loot drops have been made more frequent, promotions give people more goods to work with, the gear Gacha was split into a weapon Gacha and an Armor Gacha (anything that increases player control over the slot machine is a Good Thing for players), and the new socketing system makes gear more flexible.

But how does it play, moment to moment?  Largely like Squids, where you fire your character in a direction and watch it bounce around the arena, beating on foes or careening off of your ally unit or the walls.  Maybe it’s just the billiards fan in me, but I love that a good eye for angles and thinking ahead pays off in the game.  It’s a simpler game than MPQ, but it still seems to reward player skill, and that’s one of the things that I appreciate most in games.

So, while Marvel Puzzle Quest’s fortunes in my library sank, Slingshot Braves has risen to be the game I most prefer to play at the moment on my phone.  Tiny Dice Dungeons is another great contender, but it hasn’t seen as many “live” changes.

I find it striking that MPQ made most of its changes to try to squeeze out more monetization, and it’s obvious.  SB wants more money too, certainly, but their changes have almost uniformly felt like they were improving the progression scheme, and occasionally the combat engine.  My visceral response to the two development teams couldn’t be more opposed.  The more I see each in action, the more I like SB, and the less I like MPQ.

In a world where games can mutate and adjust over time, I think it’s critical that the changes feel like they are making the game better, and that’s really the difference between these two when it comes to whether or not I play them and recommend them.

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My Zomblobs! is a game designed in shells.  There are layers to the design, allowing for a “bird’s eye” game experience with little micromanaging, all the way down to a Civilization-like world conquering game with a Tactical RPG layer, between them plenty of opportunities to min-max your way into gaming geek happiness.

I’ve thought on more than one occasion that it could also be developed that way.  As in, develop the outer shell as a functional game and iterate down through the shells until it’s ready to weld to the TRPG (which could also function on its own) as a complete package.  Some of those iterations can stand on their own as playable games, perhaps even marketable ones.

This does spread out the work and allow for monetization to keep a project going, and even allows for design changes if it’s found that one of the iterations or directions isn’t playing well.  It also runs the risk of oversaturating the IP, making releases too disparate (in theme and/or release date) and therefore too easily ignored, getting lost in a crowd of shovelware (or becoming shovelware), dev team turnover, and code bloat.  There’s also the risk that all the shells may not play nice together if they have to bend to accommodate separate releases.

Still, there’s something appealing about the notion of breaking up a larger project into smaller bites to make it more manageable.  I’m not really sold on either approach at the moment, but it is still interesting looking at options.  The iPhone market and even XBox Live have allowed for smaller games to have decent viability in recent years, and I instinctively want to leverage that to make something bigger.  It’s a business sense that I haven’t honed very well, to be honest, but one that I can’t quite ignore.  I’d love to focus purely on designing the game and doing art for it, but the sad reality is that money makes the world go ’round, and if I want to turn the time I’ve spent on this into money (which really would be nice), I need to look at the business side of things.

On the other hand, since this is a one-man show at present, and I don’t have much programming ability or money to hire some, well… this may well all be academic anyway.  Sure, I’d like to learn the programming someday, but there are only so many hours in the day.

Still… dream big or go home, right?

At any rate, since I’m thinking of shells, here’s a rough concept of the outermost shell of Zomblobs!, the 3D globe Ataxx-variant I’m dubbing the Cytoglobe:

Cytoglobe layer

It’s a game that could stand alone as a smart phone game (or XBox Live or PC, whatever… though smart phone mobility and connectivity opens up a few new design options), and it could host a variety of variations, from multiplayer rule variants to a full map editor.  Ataxx-style play isn’t really all that mentally taxing, but it’s still fun, and I think a global geodesic version could be a nice spin on the idea.  (There’s also a fun tactile appeal of playing this on a touch screen… or even with Kinect controls.  Sort of a “megalomaniac conquering the globe” feel, as it were.)

Of course, from there it’s possible to drill down into discrete blobs with hit points instead of instant-capture, species-specific boons and weaknesses, location-specific special effects (with real world GPS twists, perhaps), progression mechanics (sometimes mistakenly called “RPG elements”), resource management, research trees and even stories.  The full Zomblobs! game would then only be a hop skip and a jump away, pulling all the elements together in a tighter fashion and welding them to the tactical game.

There’s a lot I want to do here, and there are good reasons to limit the scope of any single project.  Absent an organized plan of production, things can get hairy fast.  I’m still not sure what I’ll even be able to do… but it’s good to at least make sure I look ahead.  Forewarned is forearmed, and all that rot.

Any thoughts?

Would you buy a game that’s effectively a “slice” of a larger game?  Would you just expect it to be a sort of neo-shareware, offered for free, and the other layers monetized underneath for those who care to dig deeper?  Would you like a suite of games that work like cogs in a larger machine, or would you just want the larger machine?  Could you wait for new pieces?

…are any of you bored programmers with an itch to work on this?

…would a publicly readable wiki on the design be something worth making available?

…would Battle for Wesnoth eat my lunch anyway?

…EDITED to add the following great link to The Rampant Coyote’s recent article on “Feature Creep”… a highly relevant article as I sort out exactly what I want to do here.

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Whee, another collection of links!  Yes, I feel lazy because of it, but there’s just so much going on that I wanted to highlight.  Plenty of good discussions going on lately in game design.

Eric poked the beehive thisaway:

Class vs. Open Skill Systems

I don’t care for his tone.  I don’t agree with his assertions, either about players or designers.  It’s worth reading, though.

Naturally, others have responded.

Ysharros: Classless is a pain in the assless

Jason: The Skills of EVE

Psychochild: Stay Classy

The Rampant Coyote: Defending the Lack of Class

I find myself largely agreeing with Brian (Psychochild).  In fact, I wrote about a hybrid system before:

Autopilot Character Development

Similarly, Big Bear Butt has taken a stab at the trinity of WoW combat roles, spurring some good discussion about where things might go if we open up a little.  It’s a fantastic article that echoes a lot of my own thoughts on the matter:

The Unholy Trinity

It’s no secret to anyone who reads around here for much that I’m a firm believer in agency for gamers.  To me, that’s the point of gaming.  Blizzard’s tendency to angle in the other direction might be better for some things (development schedule, balancing), but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way or the best way for everyone.  There’s even a subtle undercurrent of resentment afoot these days against the restricted agency, diagnosed interestingly thisaway:

The Cataclysmic WoW Disease

Players want to make choices.  If they didn’t, they would watch a movie.  To be sure, there’s a difference between problems and choices, and some have different tolerances for each, but I believe that gamers want more than barely interactive movies.  Learning is a core component of gaming, and when choices are made for you, there’s less to learn.   At least, that’s one theory.

One recurring theme I see is the idea that classes are easier to balance than an open skill system.  On that I agree, but the difference is small.  As Brian has noted, balance is hard.  Period.  Also, as he and The Rampant Coyote suggest, it’s best to look at what you want to do with your game first and then balance around that.  Choosing a game design for ease of balance (a mirage at best) is a valid strategy, but not necessarily the best way to make the best game you want to make.  It’s certainly not the Only One True Path of Game Design or even game success.

I go further to suggest that Balance is overrated.  You will never have perfect balance. Even Chess, where both players have the same pieces, isn’t balanced, as players take turns (chronological imbalance), and the Queen and King are situated differently per side.  Even Go has the chronological imbalance.  That’s just the game design, never mind potential huge imbalances in player skill.  (Though I’d note that with enough turns, chronological imbalances diminish in importance.  Similarly, with enough choices, the impact of any one imbalance can be minimized.)

Further, even if we’re going to make one of those huge baseless scientific assumptions that class balance can be perfected, we’re still talking about MMOs that have a huge power band, big variances in gear, significant differences in player skill and even hardware issues.  These things will never be balanced.  That’s not a reason not to try to provide a level playing field for gameplay that likes it (PvP, for instance), and you can certainly do worse than to aim for something approaching balance, but balance can’t be the shrine at which agency and fun are sacrificed.

Life’s not fair.  Get over it.

It’s OK (and even healthy) to have gimped choices, so long as those choices can be changed easily.  Mark Rosewater of Magic the Gathering fame, has even noted that they intentionally design sub-par cards so that players can make choices.  Sometimes, even those “bad cards” wind up synergizing with other cards in new and interesting ways, making for a lot more fun than a bland, whitewashed balanced system.  This is important for game design; for players to be able to make choices, they need to have options.  That means there will inevitably be some bad choices.  Designers have to have the self-control to let players make those choices.

…and then the mercy to let them change their choices and learn from their mistakes, to help them dust off, learn something, and go try again.  That’s play.  That’s fun.  If the designers are making all the choices, players are missing out.

To be sure, an MMO is different from a brief MtG duel or game of Chess, but I’d argue that the long time investment in these games is greater incentive to give choice in play other than “reroll, noob”, especially when rerolling costs time and money.

… more on balance later.  Gotta go draw some stuff for it.  In the meantime, go check out those links and the discussions afoot.  Most are more interesting than my blather anyway.

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First a quick pair of plugs:

Above 49 (Nels Anderson) and Some Accounting on the Cost of Making Games

The Rampany Coyote, tireless advocate of the Indie scene and indie dev in his own right.

In a nutshell, then, indie games can still be expensive to actually produce, but they can still be fantastic pieces of work.  I’ve worked for two game studios now, one a cog in the EA machine (then Headgate Studios, now EA Salt Lake), one a plucky independent developer (NinjaBee/Wahoo).  I’ve liked both, albeit for different reasons… but honestly, I like where I’m at now considerably more (NinjaBee/Wahoo).  It’s more risky, developing games without a patron like EA holding a financial net under our trapeze act, but at the same time, it’s also liberating in that we have a lot more control over what we do with game and art design.

So when we come up with something like A World of Keflings, know that it took time and hard work, and isn’t just something cooked up in a garage somewhere as an experiment or cheap sequel.  In many ways, it’s a labor of love, but since we think it’s a great game and has a lot of fun to offer, we also think it’s a great product and a worthy successor to the original A Kingdom for Keflings game.

Similarly, it looks like Recettear was a labor of love not only for the original Japanese developers, but also the intrepid localization team of Carpe Fulgar.  They believed in the game enough to carry it to term and throw it to the wilds of the internet.  It’s a great game, a curious mix of shop sim and dungeon crawler that manages to be more like fudge mixed with peanut butter rather than anchovies mixed with onions.  It came out of left field for me, but is a very welcome addition to my game library and a lot of fun.  That I can play it from a USB thumb drive is icing on the cake (yay for Impulse).  As Tipa notes, it’s well worth the $20.  (There’s a demo, but as fun as it is, it just scratches the surface.)

These smaller indie games tend to live or die largely on riding waves of interest and word of mouth.  As Nels notes, 10,000 purchases are a rounding error to the EAs of the world, but the lifeblood of indie gaming.  In an age of “social media”, spreading the word is easier than it used to be, but it’s still important.  The cost of sharing a recommendation can be very low, but to those of us trying to make a living making interesting games instead of Big Box clones, it’s a boon that we’re grateful for.

…so yeah, go check out Recettear and if you like the demo, it’s a game well worth buying!  Similarly, when A World of Keflings comes out, try the demo and if you like it, please buy it!  (It will be an XBox Live exclusive for a while, but we have promised a PC port like what we did for A Kingdom for Keflings.)

And if you like ‘em, please tell people!  Digital distribution and social media keep the indie scene alive and cranking out great games.  Speaking with your wallet and recommendations speak to us, nice and loud.  Without big box market overhead and publisher static, the signal is clearer.

Thanks!

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Some more information has been released from the NinjaBee secret vault.  Microsoft is allowing devs to create costumes for avatars, and we’ve taken the opportunity to make some fun stuff, themed around the pending A World of Keflings (sequel to A Kingdom For Keflings):

A World of Keflings Avatar Store Preview

(this graphic is copied from there, but it’s worth clicking through for some extra details)

A World of Keflings Costumes

…and some of the pieces of those costumes are found here.

It’s a curious thing, this new MS policy, allowing devs to have a bit more to offer in the avatar customization arena.  Not only is it a way to maybe monetize interest a little more, but it’s also advertising of a sort, not unlike branded t-shirts.  It’s also fun; I can’t wait to see someone meandering around in a NinjaBee costume.  I think it’s a good thing, and I’m very curious to see where things go.

Beyond this being an announcement for my company, though, I get to show off some concept art that I did for the male Arabian-flavored costume:

Arabian Male Concept

I spent a fair bit of time painting this costume over a generic avatar, offering this as a proof of concept for what we might offer for avatar costuming.  The final male Arabian costume doesn’t quite match up with my original concept, but it’s fun to see that it’s at least similar to what I dreamed up.  It’s especially fun that they kept the little trim decoration design.  I doodle that sort of thing all the time in my notebooks and sketchbooks, and it’s fun to see it get through the production pipeline.

Y’see, concepts don’t always come out in the final game as intended or originally conceived.  Larisa lamented this a while back, wherein I responded with a bit of a peek into the dev process in the comments section, here quoted for completion’s sake:

Might I chime in as a game artist with a background in film production? I’ve worked with some fine concept artists, but inevitably, given engine or time constraints, the final implementation of concept art will not match the concept perfectly.

Some companies do try to match it as tightly as possible, and others use concept art as mood pieces to set the emotional tone for a piece of the game. Still others are mere color studies, a great many others are merely experiments, and it’s even likely that the bulk of concept art is merely sketch work. It’s impractical to polish it all up to “museum” quality. I’d go so far as to say that we’re not likely to be seeing even 5% of the concept art created for the project, and what we do see is likely a cross section of varied types. Straight up production pipeline concept art almost never makes it out of the studio.

Even if it did, probably only 10% of that art is faithfully represented in the game down the most granular details. There are simply too many compromises to be made in the translation from fine art to game art, most especially in the change from 2D to 3D.

If the final game art can match the mood and spirit of the concept art, evoking the emotional response that the devs desire, even if some details are lost along the way, the production is successful.

Think of concept art as a sketch (as so many of them are for various reasons; trying to make the equivalent of the Mona Lisa in 3D would be ridiculous in game production schedules) that must be translated into something playable. Much as the translation from vision (or reality) to painting can lose fidelity, translation from concept to final can lose fidelity.

The best production pipelines don’t sweat that loss. They find the most important parts of the art and focus on those and let the unnecessary bits go. That’s where the artistry and skill comes in on the production floor, making the choices on where to spend time. That’s where the art director steps in and keeps both the concept artists from going too far and the production artists from endlessly chasing miniscule details. It’s a matter of scope… and a LOT of game devs don’t do that well, to be blunt. That’s an article in itself, though.

To be sure, it’s possible to take concept art and match it to a high degree of fidelity, as in a Pixar movie, but the practical realities of game production mean that a different approach is necessary. (This, both in the production cost and the lack of prerendering… Pixar’s 30 frames per second are typically rendered over the course of DAYS, while we have to render in real time.)

So, concept doesn’t always translate directly to the final product, for a number of reasons.  I also intend to dig into this a bit more with Yet Another Artisty Article over at the official NinjaBee blog… but I’m not done with that article yet, and it might need to fit into the promotion schedule.  I’ll mention it when it comes up.  There’s only so much detail I can get into for a variety of reasons, but I really want to show a bit more about how things go from concept art to final game asset.

Until that time, then…

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For these guys, at least (hat tip to the Rampant Coyote):

Humble Indie Bundle Breaks $1 Million

That’s some pretty cool news.  Sometimes, doing something good pays off.

Oh, and World of Goo is still awesome.  Just in case you hadn’t heard.

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I don’t usually do this bandwagon thing, but Scarybooster touched a nerve on this one.

Developer Appreciation Week

See, I’m a developer.  I’m not looking for cookies (though sending me fudge would be OK) or cards, but let me tell you a little bit about this side of the console.

Game Development is a job.  It is hard work.  It’s packed with thankless iteration, long hours and soul-grinding, mind numbing inanity.  We do have our moments, though.

It is really great to see something you’ve worked on get to playable form.  (“I love it when a plan comes together.“)  Even small victories through the day, when some code works or a piece of art actually looks right in the game, well, those keep us going.

Many of us believe in the potential of games as not only entertaining (though primarily that), but also uplifting and educational.  Putting something you created out into the wild and watching it make people happy is a boon to the soul that few things in life can match.

We love it when people pay our salaries, to be sure, but those sterile numbers on the quarterlies don’t tell the human story.

The occasional blog post or Facebook blurb where someone praises our games are islands of refuge in a sea of grumpiness.  The few times I’ve had someone chime in here on the blog that they liked a game I worked on are delightful.  Most people like to know that their work is appreciated.

And y’know, it really doesn’t take much.  I don’t think I’ve ever had the Boss bring an email or letter to a company meeting, sent in by a fan to praise our work.  Sure, Blizzard has people falling over themselves to praise their name, but they aren’t the only people who make games.  I can almost guarantee that even taking five minutes to send an email or “real” mail to a company, praising their product, will be much appreciated by the sometimes forgotten devs.

We’re not greedy, we just like to be liked and appreciated.  Fudge is good, but a brief “that was an awesome game, dude!” is candy for the soul for the guys in the dev trenches.

So, in closing, let me thank a couple of people quickly:

Thanks to the Three Rings crew, mad geniuses behind Puzzle Pirates.  Special “mad props” (what does that even mean?) to Apollo, Demeter, Nemo and of course, Captain Cleaver, and a huge round of applause from me for the whole dev team and the dauntless Ocean Masters.  The community around Puzzle Pirates is particularly tight knit, it seems, and these folk keep making great additions to the game, and keep the community rolling in good will.  That may not show up itemized on the quarterly financials, but it’s as good as money in the bank.

Individually, I’d like to tip a hat to the good Brian “Psychochild” Green.  He and I don’t always see eye to eye, but he’s taken time out of his crazy days to communicate with me on a handful of topics, and I find his insight to be valuable and interesting.  If you’ve not http://www.psychochild.org/ yet, might I recommend it highly?

To everyone who has chimed in with a comment here about games I’ve worked on, thank you.  Words on a website may not look like much, but the goodwill behind them is always felt and appreciated.

And, if I may, to anyone who has enjoyed a game for any reason, please consider sending a nice email (or more if you feel like it, to be sure) to the guys and gals who made it possible.  In an age of megapublishers and blockbuster games, sometimes it’s easy to ignore the real people doing the work.  Heaven knows I’ve forgotten too many times, and I’m no stranger to either side of the fence.  We could all stand to be kinder, and going out of your way to praise someone is healthy.

Game on!

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